Science Fiction Studies

#127 = Volume 42, Part 3 = November 2015


John Rieder

Utopia, SF, and the Ideology of Form

Tom Moylan. Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination. 1986. 2nd ed., rev. Ed. Raffaela Baccolini. Ralahine Utopian  Studies, Vol. 14. Oxford, UK: Peter Lang, 2014. xxx + 328 pp. $52 pbk.

Robert T. Tally, Jr. Utopia in the Age of Globalization: Space, Representation, and the World-System. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. xvi + 111 pp. $75 hc.

Philip E. Wegner. Shockwaves of Possibility: Essays on Science Fiction, Globalization, and Utopia. Ralahine Utopian  Studies, Vol. 15. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2014. xix + 308 pp. $56 pbk.

In one of his meditations in the Prison Notebooks on Machiavelli’s The Prince, Antonio Gramsci poses a question about the motives that drive the “active politician” to try to change the world, to make it into the way it “ought to be.” The question, writes Gramsci, is “whether what ‘ought to be’ is arbitrary or necessary; whether it is concrete will on the one hand or idle fancy, yearning, daydream on the other.” He concludes that “‘what ought to be’ ... is the only realistic and historicist interpretation of reality; it alone is history in the making and philosophy in the making; it alone is politics” (172). All three of the publications under review here—the Ralahine Utopian Studies re-issue of Tom Moylan’s classic contribution to sf and utopian studies, Demand the Impossible (1986), and two new studies, Philip E. Wegner’s Shockwaves of Possibility and Robert Tally, Jr.’s Utopia in the Age of Globalization—could have taken Gramsci’s sentiment as an epigraph. Each of them argues in its own way that utopian desire for a better world constitutes the “only realistic and historicist interpretation of reality” and therefore the vital core of any viable politics available to us at present.

The new edition of Demand the Impossible adds significant fresh material to Tom Moylan’s influential and highly regarded theorization and analysis of the “critical utopia” as exemplified in Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975), Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974), Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), and Samuel R. Delany’s Triton (1976). Moylan’s new preface affirms that, in spite of its publication date in the mid-1980s, Demand the Impossible was written very much from the position Gramsci calls that of an “active politician” in the turbulent 1960s and 1970s: “my project was an unabashedly aligned intervention written during, and sharing in the spirit of, the larger sphere of oppositional culture and politics out of which I saw the critical utopia emerging.... I was simultaneously drawn to these works as a political organizer, a teacher, and a scholar” (xi, xiv). Both the biographical narrative of his own involvement in the civil rights and anti-war movements and the larger cultural and historical context in which the critical utopia expresses a collective sense of “what ought to be” help to explain why Demand the Impossible is focused on the “ideologeme” of activism, and one of its most trenchant arguments advances the thesis that the utopian impulse in these four novels concerns the process of changing things for the better rather than a static blueprint of an ideal society (Moylan borrows the neologistic term “ideologeme” from Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious [NY: Cornell, 1981]). Moylan’s new preface  emphasizes that activism and process are crucial to the formal innovation achieved in the critical utopia, which reverses the subordination of character to setting in the older, guided-tour-style utopias and instead brings into the foreground the political decision-making of the protagonists against a background setting in which several—utopian, dystopian, and realist—social alternatives are typically present.

This formal reversal, which combines features of the older utopias with those of the more novelistic dystopian fictions of the earlier twentieth century, is at the heart of the textual structure that guides Moylan’s analysis. Each of his readings begins by separating the “iconic” and “discrete” registers of the text, a distinction Moylan derives from the work of Juri Lotman. The iconic register concerns the background society, the fictional world within which the story takes place. The discrete register is that of the characters and the plot. Finally, and crucially, a third textual register arises from the contradictions between the ideal society envisioned in the iconic register and the struggles encountered in the discrete register, so that formally the narratives consistently explore and play out the negativity of the present as exposed in the conflict between what is and what could be. This third register is what Moylan refers to in Demand the Impossible as “a synchronic ‘uneven development’ as the older utopian elements coexist and conflict with the contemporary elements” (42). It is what Fredric Jameson calls the “ideology of form” in The Political Unconscious. For Jameson the genres that coexist in tension with one another in a given text constitute a quasi-geological or archaeological pattern of strata that carries in it the long history of cultural change and social struggle underlying the narrative choices available at any given time and place. The history of form appears as the third of the three expanding horizons of interpretation proposed in The Political Unconscious, the first being the individual text, which upon inspection yields the symbolic action performed by its imaginary solution to real contradictions, and the second the intertextual horizon that yields the text’s dialogic engagement in class struggle. Moylan’s deployment of the iconic, discrete, and formal registers of the textual structure adapts Jameson’s schema to the particular demands of the critical utopia, seeing the text’s imaginary solution to social contradictions in the elaboration of its utopian setting, its depiction of class struggle over those contradictions in the discrete register, and its historical significance as an emergent form in the “uneven development” that confronts the present with what Moylan calls the possibilities generated by an “alter-modernity . . . produced, challenged, altered, and most of all, lived by means of the utopian method itself” (xix; emphasis in original). The fact that the four critical utopias Moylan analyzes are also all sf narratives is a feature of the history of form that I will return to later in connection with Phil Wegner’s Shockwaves of Possibility.

There are two more major pieces of new material in the new edition of Demand the Impossible. Moylan has added a new chapter on Aldous Huxley’s Island (1962), in which Moylan rejects arguments that Huxley achieved an earlier or even the first critical utopia, resting his argument finally on the “silence and resignation at the heart of the novel” (221). Finally, as a conclusion the volume offers a lively symposium of responses to Demand the Impossible by a dozen prominent utopian studies scholars. The participants offer thoughtful, erudite, and provocative testimony to the book’s impact on themselves and on the field. Many of them explore questions about the critical utopia’s historical significance at the time of its publication, its ongoing importance now, and the wider applicability of the concept of the critical utopia beyond the tightly focused historical context in which Moylan places it. The intellectual depth and range of the conversation say all that need be said about the profound impact Demand the Impossible has had on the field, and about the timeliness and appropriateness of this enhanced new edition.

If the focal emphasis on activism in Demand the Impossible speaks to the historical moment that Moylan’s project in some degree hopes to think through, the term globalization in Robert T. Tally, Jr.’s Utopia in the Age of Globalization: Space, Representation, and the World-System and Philip E. Wegner’s Shockwaves of Possibility: Essays on Science Fiction, Globalization, and Utopia points instead to mapping as the ideologeme that conceptualizes and narrativizes the exigencies of the contemporary situation. Both Tally and Wegner invoke Jameson’s notion of “cognitive mapping” as a response—as indeed one of the only available responses—to what both see, in periodizing terms, as the advent of postmodernism. Noting the resurgence of dystopian futures and the foreshortening of the horizon of the possible that has marked cultural production under the ascendancy of neoliberalism, both critics identify the utopian impulse with the attempt to grasp some sort of totalizing perspective on the flows of finance, capital accumulation, and political power in the age of Thatcher, Reagan, and their corporate and political heirs.

This emphasis on mapping forms the central argument of Tally’s short monograph. He argues that “utopia in the present configuration can only be a method ... [of] imaginatively projecting a world that enables one to represent the apparently unrepresentable totality of the world system” (ix). That an acute and widespread sense of bewilderment and powerlessness forms the premise of such a thesis is by no means lost on Tally, who quotes or paraphrases no less than five times Jameson’s now-famous dictum that these days it seems easier to imagine the end of the world than an end to capitalism. The fact that late capital has penetrated and colonized not only every region of the globe but, apparently, the future itself is not merely a political and economic development but an environmental one, as the former natural world becomes more and more irreparably damaged by a technoculture addicted to overproduction and enabled by financial instruments with less and less connection to empirical reality. In one of the best sections of the book, Tally argues that the exponential growth of financial derivatives—and, as Tally says, “the word ‘exponential’ is not just a hyperbolic way of saying ‘a lot’; in 1970 ... the global market in derivatives represented perhaps a few million U.S. dollars. The derivatives market in 2006 represented over 327 trillion dollars” (78)—is not merely symptomatic but foundational to a postmodern crisis of representation. Derivatives are basically contracts that swap one obligation or debt for another. Not only are they nowadays “largely unrelated to deliverable, physical commodities” (79), but they also form a network of connected obligations and dependencies far beyond the control or comprehension of anyone involved: “Distant and diverse entities, including companies and countries, become bound together in a complex web of derivative transactions which, when a crisis does occur, may affect many different parties” in wholly unanticipated ways (82). What the utopian imagination is able to grasp, it would seem, is the very ungraspability of this condition. Contemporary utopia is not, Tally argues, a way of knowing the world but rather a way of narrating our relationship to its historically specific condition of unknowability.

As befits the periodizing emphasis on globalization, Tally’s argument comes buttressed by a periodization of the forms of utopia in relation to developments in capitalism. The early-modern utopia imagined the ideal nation-state as an alternative space, in a matrix of representation constructed from projects of exploration, colonization, and the movements of merchant capital. In the nineteenth century the dynamics of representation changed from spatial to temporal difference as the ideologeme of progress took over the task of naturalizing the expansion of industrial capital. The nineteenth-century utopia therefore located itself in the future, while retaining the shape of the alternative nation-state, which persisted as the dominant form of utopia in the dystopias of the earlier twentieth century and in the critical utopia itself. But “the era of globalization has, at least in part, rendered the nation-state somewhat less than dominant, if not entirely residual, and the utopia of this world-system is thus necessarily post-national” (7). Its vocation is not to imagine a better world but simply “to make visible and meaningful the world” in the face of the ascendant neoliberal discourse that has lent the priorities of capitalism the force of natural law and that has turned the future itself into a bleak mirror of the systemic social injustice and catastrophic environmental degradation of the present (8).

Tally ends up arguing that the fantastic project of utopia has become more realistic than realism itself. He turns in his conclusion to China Miéville’s argument that capitalist reality is now so shot through with fantasy that the genre of literary fantasy currently offers a better opportunity for grasping the truth of the world than a literary realism based on capitalist society’s delusions about itself. Before that, Tally performs an interesting synthesis of Herbert Marcuse’s existential deployment of aesthetic pleasure against the forces of alienation and Jameson’s notion of cognitive mapping, which likewise “presents another figure for imagining a life without anxiety” (59) by constructing a sense of belonging in the world insofar as “one engages with the sense of disorientation by making sense of, or giving form to, the world” (54). It is not a matter of constructing a specific sort of content, but rather of advocating “power to the imagination,” a slogan Tally resuscitates from Paris 1968.  In an interesting move early on, Tally chooses not to engage the genre of science fiction, which figures so heavily in Moylan’s and Wegner’s arguments, because “the generic parameters of utopian narrative have always been rather ambiguous, right down to the notion of ‘fiction versus nonfiction,’ not to mention ‘realism versus unrealistic representational modes’” (7-8). Thus, it is Marcuse’s general faith in the aesthetic and his “dialectical reversal of the traditional priority of truth and fiction” (57) that Tally identifies as the appropriate utopian project for the postmodern world. Rather than plumping for the utopian energy of a particular genre, Tally argues for the benefits of  “the purposive act of reading literature, of taking projects of the imagination seriously, [by which] this utopian project is already begun” (97).

Wegner’s much bigger and more ambitious Shockwaves of Possibility is, in contrast, strongly focused on the utopian energies of science fiction. This emphasis ties together the three related projects in the book, which is at once a gripping theoretical essay on the practice of periodization, a highly original intervention in genre theory, and, like Tally’s essay, an impassioned plea for the importance of utopian thinking in the face of neoliberalism’s darkening and constriction of the horizons of the foreseeable future. Wegner’s overriding thesis is that science fiction’s utopianism is the genre’s distinguishing feature, in which its constitutive force and continuing significance reside. The argument is therefore very much lodged in the same vein of thinking about sf as Moylan’s. Moylan contends that it is no accident that the critical utopias analyzed in Demand the Impossible are all also sf, because

this genre has been a uniquely privileged symbolic response to the conditions of existence in this century.... [In sf] a critique of the present was developed in a literary form that proved especially capable of resisting the affirmative culture of contemporary capitalism even as much of science fiction was reabsorbed into that consumer culture in print and, especially, in film. Thus, in the literary space opened up by the science fiction of the 1960s, the critical utopia could be written. (41)

The premise from which both Moylan and Wegner approach sf is Jameson’s notion of the “ideology of form,” the way in which, as Wegner puts it, genres “bear within themselves the historical traces of the situation to which their specific forms emerge as a response” (8; emphasis in original). Both Moylan and Wegner agree in placing science fiction within the long history of the development of the romance, a status it shares, according to Moylan, with “the fairy tale, heroic fantasy, horror, and the gothic” (31). What Wegner wants to argue beyond this, however, is that the field of sf studies must not relinquish the focus that Darko Suvin and Fredric Jameson, in their different ways, put on the utopian legacy and the potential of sf, as opposed to the cultural phenomena emanating from sf’s (and, one might add, utopian desire’s) absorption into the broader range of post-1900 consumer culture.

Part of Wegner’s argument here is that the broader cultural-studies approach to sf signals not only an unfortunate regularization and professionalization of sf studies but also, often, an anti-Marxist development that he aligns with “conservative disciplinary retrenchments such as those of the new formalists or surface readers” (xiii). In contrast, Rob Latham’s sketch of the history of sf scholarship in his introduction to The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction (2014), while delineating a schism between the formalist, canonizing impulses of the Suvinian paradigm and a broader-ranging, more inclusive cultural-studies approach that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, nonetheless argues that both approaches are “deeply rooted in Western Marxist thought.... [W]here Suvin adapted Brechtian ideals of estrangement and Ernst Bloch’s notion of the utopian novum, cultural-studies theorists returned to the Gramscian concept of hegemony and the critiques of popular culture pioneered by Raymond Williams and the Birmingham School” (4). And it is clear from Wegner’s comments on sf scholarship throughout Shockwaves that he acknowledges, draws upon, and often generously praises the kind of cultural-studies-oriented work Latham is describing. What exactly is at stake, then, in the stout defense Wegner goes on to make of Suvin’s concepts of cognitive estrangement and the novum?

The answer to this question returns us to the notion of “mapping” that plays such a prominent role in Tally’s essay. According to Wegner, the precious, politically effective kernel of sf as a form is what Jameson describes as its “allegorical mapping of the present” (from Jameson’s 1982 SFS essay “Progress versus Utopia; or, Can We Imagine the Future?” qtd. in Shockwaves 43). Sf “eschews the pleasures and demands” of realist fiction’s emphasis on character psychology, and in doing so “frees itself for [the] operation of spatial figuration” by which it delineates a collective rather than an individual drama. Another way to put this, one that has been often advanced, is that the dominant formal element in sf is setting rather than plot, character, or style. What Wegner therefore emphasizes in Suvin’s formulations of cognitive estrangement and the fictional novum is their totalizing quality, the fact that, as Suvin puts it, the novum “entails the whole universe of the tale” ( Shockwaves 48). The value of the sf setting as a whole world resides in its imaginary realization of “a radical break from the status quo” (49). The inherent impossibility of this project, one of Jameson’s favorite and crucial themes in his analyses of utopia and sf, then informs Wegner’s conceptualization of the essential formal operations of the sf text:

Every science fiction narrative can be understood to unfold through three distinct stages: first, a critical estrangement of the author’s contemporary reality; secondly, a pushing up against the limits of representation and contemporary reality; and finally, a leap into a void where language and signification themselves break down. Thus, the most concrete manifestation of any science fiction narrative’s Utopianism is to be located in those moments wherein the closure of the conventional realist work is displaced by an openness to the unfinished potential of historical becoming. (50)

The ideology of form here becomes not just the trace of generic history but a kind of ethical imperative, a demand to engage, activate, renew, and redefine tradition not all that different from Eliot’s notion of doing so in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919), although with a wholly antithetical political charge attached to it.

Wegner makes the ethical charge of the ideology of form entirely explicit by synthesizing the Suvinian novum with Alain Badiou’s key conceptualization of a radical break with the status quo, the event. Wegner argues first of all that “one of the defining features of science fiction lies in its staging of this encounter with the real, Badiou’s ‘void’ of an event” (51). He goes on, then, to propose a fourfold schema (based on the Greimasian semantic rectangle) of “evental genres” consisting of universal history, science fiction, the Kunstlerroman, and the comedy of remarriage. This is certainly one of the most original and exciting proposals advanced in a book bristling with intellectual energy from start to finish. Each of these genres stages the possibility of a radical encounter with the truth of the real, an encounter that Wegner contrasts tellingly to the pseudo-events of contemporary post-apocalyptic fiction where the post-catastrophic future is merely a stripped-down version of the present-day dominant ideological world-view. In this context, Suvin’s insistence that cognitive estrangement distinguishes sf from other non-realist genres gets retooled as “the genre’s deep and abiding materialism, its commitment to demonstrating both the mutability of our historical circumstances and our all too human agency in shaping that reality” (69). At the same time, it becomes clear that such a commitment is by no means the exclusive property of a single genre. Even the four evental genres—which Wegner also aligns with the four discourses introduced in Lacan’s later seminars (the master, the university, the hysteric, and the analyst) and with Badiou’s four sites of the event (politics, science, art, and love)—are represented as historically privileged but also mutable and transitory, resources for cognitive estrangement.

Alongside this theorization of the evental genres is Wegner’s insistence on periodization as itself a kind of cognitive mapping of our historical situation and of the internal historicity of the sf genre, the “uneven development” that structures its ideology of form. Wegner’s theorization of sf’s ideology of form maps the genre onto the larger, epochal movements of literary history, not only in seeing both sf and utopia as sibling descendants of the ancient genre of romance but also in its internal development through three stages—realism, modernism, and postmodernism. Wegner, following Jameson, sees the three stages as bound up with one another, and the sequence, clearly based on more standard accounts of the literary and artistic canon, as repeating itself in film as well as in the genre of sf. But there is a curiously secondary quality to this echoing of high culture by the sf subculture, something troublingly akin to what has often been observed about Suvin’s work, a desire to assimilate sf to the categories associated with the study of “serious” rather than commercial and popular art. A more basic problem is in my opinion embedded in Jameson’s conceptualization of the material logic underlying the period terms, since for Jameson, as Wegner explains, “each of these three stages corresponds to ‘structural stages’ within the historical development of the capitalist mode of production (the capitalist mode of production itself only one period within a longer still evolving sequence of modes of production)” (6). The idea that capitalism is not only a different mode of production from the ones it colonized and subjugated in the course of its emergence, but also that it represents the (for now) culminating stage in a sequence of modes of production, is one that I find deeply pernicious. How possible is it to dissociate the notion that the consolidation of the world market—and thus, indeed, the current phase of globalization itself—is part of a “still evolving sequence of modes of production” from the pseudo-evolutionary sense of social destiny naturalized by the ideology of progress and capitalist worship of “growth”?

Wegner is quite careful, however, to present both his periodization and his diagrammatic scheme of the four evental genres as heuristic exercises intended to “heighten the awareness of previously unacknowledged connections and continuities of a range of events” (71). And in defense of the period terms’ applicability to sf, Wegner advances the thesis that there is a “complementary and dialectical relationship” (8) between modernism and mass culture, so that modernist experimentation in form is both complemented and dialectically reconfigured by the way sf’s content unfolds the novum. Nonetheless, if it is not surprising to find Philip K. Dick among the modernists of sf and William Gibson among the postmodernists, it is surprising indeed to see the Gernsback-Campbell era tabbed sf’s realist phase. Wegner’s point that this is the period when sf establishes itself as the common ground of a community of readers is well taken, however, even if the terminology seems a bit strained. The most important and consequential achievement of Wegner’s periodizing, moreover, is realized in his commentary on the recent past, the post-cyberpunk sf that he, like Tally, connects with the key term globalization. This is where the bulk of the study resides, in a series of smart, capacious, densely conceived, and finely articulated readings of a wide range of recent sf texts, including almost every vital contemporary form—the novel, film, TV series, graphic novel, and anime. It is a feast of commentary that I highly recommend to any scholar of sf or contemporary popular culture.

Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Ed. and trans. Quentin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. New York: International, 1971.

Latham, Rob. “Introduction.” The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction. New York: Oxford UP, 2014. 1-19.

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